Opening Nights

For a decade, the Torchlight Program partnered with Opening Nights to curate screenings of the best of contemporary independent cinema, including an annual screening of “A Movie You Haven’t Seen,” which brought the hottest films from the international festival circuit to Florida State University each spring.

Opening Nights is an annual series of arts performances hosted by Florida State University that shines a spotlight on the best of the Arts. The goal of Opening Nights is to provide meaningful artistic and professional experiences to students on and off of Florida State University’s campus, including providing master classes, lectures, and question-and-answer sessions for students by visiting artists and performers.

From left to right: Frank Patterson, Paul Cohen, and Geoffrey Gilmore.

The Visitor

Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira

The curious thing about The Visitor (2008) is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way.

Richard Jenkins was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Walter Vale, the man who discovers a pair of illegal aliens, victims of a real-estate scam, living in his New York apartment. After the mix-up is resolved, Vale invites the couple, a young, Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira), to stay with him. An unlikely friendship develops between the retiring, quiet Vale and the vibrant Tarek, and the former begins to loosen up and respond to Tarek’s drumming lessons as if something in him waiting to be liberated has finally been unleashed. All goes well until Tarek is hauled in by immigration authorities and threatened with deportation. His mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), turns up and stays with Vale, sparking a renewed if subdued interest in courtship; however, the wheels of injustice in immigration crush all manner of hopes in post-9/11 America. Writer and director Thomas McCarthy has created a wonderfully measured story about change and renewal and put it all on the shoulders of Jenkins, a largely unheralded but masterful performer whose time for renown has surely come.

(500) Days of Summer

Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in director Marc Webb’s wry, nonlinear romantic comedy about a man who falls head over heels for a woman who doesn’t believe in love. The film’s many virtues include an unusual storytelling concept, a sharp sense for music, an amorous view of Los Angeles and on-the-money performances.

This postmodern love story begins when Tom, a hapless greeting card copywriter and hopeless romantic, becomes blindsided after his girlfriend Summer dumps him. He shifts back and forth through various periods of their 500 days together to try to figure out where things went awry.

First-time feature director Marc Webb uses his background in music video to beautifully present the action and crisply move the story along, adding subtle touches, such as seasonal color palettes, to help guide viewers through the twisted chronology. Webb’s use of music, principally pop tunes, is anything but an afterthought, as the carefully chosen songs enhance the atmosphere of scenes and chart the romance’s line graph. It bristles with energy, emotional and intellectual, as it flits about the dizzying highs and weeping, karaoke-bellowing lows of a passionate entanglement.

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams

Blue Valentine (2010) stormed the independent cinema world as an Official Selection of the Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance Film Festivals. Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this cinematic masterpiece is, without a doubt, unlike any other. Focusing on the raw acting talent of both Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, director Derek Cianfrance takes his audience into a world where the story’s raw and realistic plot line manages to not only break the viewer’s heart, but piece it back together simultaneously.

Centered around a young married couple, Blue Valentine illustrates Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) love in such a way that it reflects the characters’ streams of consciousness. The viewer crosscuts through and lands straight into important events that lead up to the decisions the characters make in the final scene. The two are consumed by the harsh realities of life and desperately fight to keep their family together. Coming from dysfunctional, broken homes, neither Dean nor Cindy ever knew what it was like to live peaceful, harmonious lives.

This emotionally fascinating film of a marriage on the rocks is expertly executed by director Derek Cianfrance, who won a Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Filmmaker for his work with Blue Valentine. With two of the strongest actors by his side, no one can deny that Cianfrance creates an unusually powerful film. Ryan Gosling was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Half Nelson and Michelle Williams was nominated for Academy Awards for her roles in Blue Valentine and Brokeback Mountain. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams have an unquestionable chemistry together.

Win Win

Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Bobby Cannavale

Following depressed and anxious attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, Win Win shows the viewer that sometimes blood isn’t thicker than water when Flaherty finds himself and his family taking in a star athlete from a troubled home.

After the screening, Geoffrey Gilmore (Director of the Tribeca Film Festival) and Paul Cohen (Executive Director of the Torchlight Program) joined in a Q&A where they discussed the current and emerging distribution strategies in the film industry. Gilmore and Cohen’s knowledge of both art and commerce took the direction of the conversation from the future of the film industry into a more contemporary discussion of what strides are currently being employed to further innovate the industry.

Being Flynn

Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, and Julianne Moore

This season on February 20th, 2012, Geoffrey Gilmore (Director of the Tribeca Film Festival) brought a gripping movie titled Being Flynn from Sundance 2012 to Tallahassee’s annual Seven Days of Opening Nights for another sold out cinema evening. He also surprised the audience with the film’s director Paul Weitz and producer Andrew Miano. Adapted from Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore and Paul Dano, is about an estranged father (De Niro) and son (Dano) who the universe has suddenly pushed together again. Between drugs, alcohol, a homeless shelter and literature the two must figure out how to deal with their past as well as their present in a tense and melancholy situation.

Following the showing, Torchlight Program Executive Director Paul Cohen joined Geoffrey Gilmore in a Q&A with the director and producer where discussions of the making of the movie, how the film business is transforming, evolved to a rich contemporary conversation of independent cinema.

War Witch

Directed by Kim Nguyen

War Witch, the Canadian entry into 2013 Academy Award Oscar race, is this year’s selection from our Torchlight guest Geoffrey Gilmore. Following the special screening of the film at the Student Life Center, there was a Q&A with the director, Kim Nguyen, and producer, Marie-Claude Poulin (a former Florida State University graduate).

Komona, a girl in Sub-Saharan Africa, tells the story to her unborn child about her kidnapping by rebels and forced to join their bloody civil war. When she discovers a valuable intuition about the presence of the enemy, she is elevated as a witch and favored by the rebel leader. However, this special status threatens to be short-lived in this world of superstition and senseless brutality even as the ghosts of the war dead haunt her visions. However, when a newfound friend convinces her to desert, Komona finds escaping that brutal life is far from easy with its physical and spiritual consequences following her wherever she goes.

Palo Alto

Directed by Gia Coppola
Starring: James Franco, Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer

Geoffrey Gilmore surprised audience members with a special introduction of our guest director Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto prior to its national release by Tribeca Films.

“This is Gia Coppola’s feature directing debut – her grandfather is Francis Ford Coppola, and Sofia Coppola is her aunt – and she does a lot right here … Her quiet, attentive filmmaking goes a long…” – Manohla Gargis, The New York Times, 2014

Shy, sensitive April is the class virgin, torn between an illicit flirtation with her soccer coach Mr. B and an unrequited crush on sweet stoner Teddy. Emily, meanwhile, offers sexual favors to every boy to cross her path – including both Teddy and his best friend Fred, a live wire without filters or boundaries. As one high school party bleeds into the next – and April and Teddy struggle to admit their mutual affection – Fred’s escalating recklessness starts to spiral into chaos.

Racing Extinction

Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Once again, this year’s Torchlight Interns had the opportunity to take part in the backstage presentation at FSU’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium of “A Movie You Haven’t Seen”. For the 2015 Opening Nights Festival, the film that premiered with much excitement was the nationally acclaimed documentary, Racing Extinction. A Q&A followed with the Academy Award winning director, Louie Psihoyos and the Executive Director of the Torchlight Program, Paul Cohen. Special guest Adrienne Hall, a former Torchlight Program Teaching Assistant, described working on this film’s production after graduating from the Torchlight Center Program.

Mr. Psihoyos directed the Oscar winning documentary The Cove and now with Racing Extinction has utilized state-of-the-art equipment, and has assembled a team of artists and activists intent on showing the world never-before-seen images that expose issues of endangered species and mass extinction. This film had just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival prior to our Opening Nights screening.

Since our presentation, Racing Extinction was nominated for an Oscar for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song at the 2016 Academy Awards. It won the Catalyst Award at the Boulder International Film Festival, was nominated for Best Documentary at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and won the International Green Film Award at the Cinema for Peace Awards. Most recently, it was nominated for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking for the 2016 Emmy Awards.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Written and Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill and Julian Dennison

This year’s Opening Nights presentation of “A Movie You Haven’t Seen” introduced featured guest, Mr. Mark Fishkin, the Executive Director of the California Film Institute and Founder of The Mill Valley Film Festival along with long-time friend and colleague, Paul Cohen, Executive Director of Torchlight Program at Florida State .

Arriving directly from its premiere at Sundance and SXSW Film Festivals, the award-winning film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople proved to be an Opening Nights favorite. After the film, an enthusiastic audience was able to participate in a Q&A session with Mr. Fishkin and Mr. Cohen, with assistance from interns from FSU’s Torchlight Program. This discussion focused on the director’s vision for the film and the film’s contributions to this year’s lineup of anticipated indie films soon to be released.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the type of film that makes comedy look easy, a well-oiled machine that bounds back and forth from big laughs to heartbreak and back again. One of Sundance 2016’s most guaranteed hits, it’s an adventure of storytelling itself. ” – Sundance, 2016

Since its screening, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has won a variety of awards for Best Narrative and Audience Favorite at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the Montclair Film Festival, the Wisconsin Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Film Festival.


Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Chris Evans, Jenny Slate, Mckenna Grace, and Octavia Spencer

The 10th anniversary Opening Nights presentation of “A Movie You Haven’t Seen” showcased director Mark Webb’s Gifted. This is Mr. Webb’s second film presented at “A Movie You Haven’t Seen,” his first being (500) Days of Summer at the second annual event. Another return, the distinguished panel guest for this 10th presentation was California Film Institute Executive Director and Mill Valley Film Festival founder Mark Fishkin. Torchlight Program director Paul Cohen was the event’s presenter.

Gifted is a heartwarming drama about a man raising his prodigious niece, played by the incredibly young and talented Mckenna Grace.

The conversation after the film focused on the importance of supporting film as a community. This film was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Movie Award and Octavia Spencer won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture.

Life and Nothing More

Written and Directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza
Starring: Regina Williams and Andrew Bleechington

The 11th annual Opening Nights presentation of “A Movie You Haven’t Seen” at the Student Life Center on April 14, 2018 brought a familiar face, Mr. Antonio Méndez Esparza. Mr. Esparza is a professor at the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. The film was presented by Torchlight Program executive director Paul Cohen, who also served as this film’s executive producer.

This was the film’s Tallahassee premiere, something very special since the film was made in the area with the support of the community. Life and Nothing More was the first feature-length film produced in Tallahassee. After the film, Mr. Cohen led a discussion and audience Q&A with Mr. Esparza and the two stars of the film, Regina Williams and Andrew Bleechington. The crowd asked thoughtful questions about the film’s sociopolitical relevance and engaged in an interesting conversation about cinematic realism and improvisational acting.

Life and Nothing More had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. Variety Magazine named the film one of the top 10 best of the festival. The film received two nominations at the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards and brought home the John Cassavetes Spirit Award.